Barge and elevator operators who rely on the Columbia River to transport millions of bushels of wheat to market say they hope a fix for a damaged concrete sill at the Bonneville Dam navigation lock will take place sooner rather than later.
“One nice thing is we’re 95% done harvesting, so I think we’ve all put the crop away,” said Damon Filan, manager of Tri-Cities Grain and a member of the Washington Grain Commission. “We’re all kind of hoping this will be a very temporary one-week or two-week outage.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that the lock should be reopened by 10 a.m. on Sept. 30.
“It’s important to recognize the patience from our Columbia River users, who depend on this critical piece of infrastructure to run their businesses,” said Col. Aaron Dorf, the Army Corps’ Portland district commander.
“This lock closure is significant, which is why our engineers, experts and contractors are working tirelessly to ensure we get the locks back in service as quickly as possible. It is not lost on anyone in the Portland district that this outage has tremendous impacts to Columbia River users,” he said. “Between now and Sept. 30, our teams will be working around the clock to construct the new sill to restore Columbia River traffic.”
Three groups in the industry are the most impacted — grain shippers, transporters and exporters, said Rob Rich, vice president of marine services at Shaver Transportation Co. in Portland.
Morrow County Grain Growers was slated to ship several barges this week, said grain merchant Brian Peiler.
“We’ll just have to wait until the river opens back up and ship it then,” he said.
Some grain slated to be shipped is outside and some is in the elevator, he said. The grain that’s outside may need to be moved inside if the delay lasts more than a week, he said.
Fourteen commercial vessels are impacted by the lock closure, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Columbia River Waterways Management Division — seven from Tidewater Barge, four from Shaver Transportation and three from American Cruise Lines.
Shaver operates a fleet of 20 grain barges between Lewiston, Idaho, and export terminals on the lower Columbia River.
“This, of course, is a busy time of year postharvest,” Rich said.
Three Shaver barge tows are above Bonneville Dam 40 miles upstream from Portland and waiting to go through the locks. Ten barges are loaded.
They are tied off at the Fort Raines barge storage area above Bonneville Dam, awaiting transit through the locks when they reopen, Rich said.
“All that wheat is going to move” despite the delay, Rich said.
The barges are closed-hatch and weather is moderate, so Rich doesn’t expect the delay to harm the grain.
“It is not uncommon for wheat to be in barges three or four weeks or more,” he said. “There isn’t a concern about quality degradation.”
Wheat exports have been slow due to trade wars and global competition, Filan said.
Overseas customers tend to purchase wheat several months out, he said.
“If it was a very long-term deal, then we’d have some challenges, because I’m not sure the rail could handle the demand,” he said.
Railroad tracks line the river gorge, but have much smaller capacity than barges. A four-barge tow carries 480,000 bushels of wheat, roughly the equivalent of 120 to 130 rail cars, Filan said.
About $2 billion in commercial cargo travels the entire system annually, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the No. 1 export gateway in the U.S. for wheat and barley and the No. 2 export gateway for corn.